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27 September 2011

Rosh Hashanah - Birthday of Humankind

Since it marks the end of one and the beginning of a new year, newness is a main theme of Rosh Hashanah. I have read that the rabbis in the Talmud taught that Rosh Hashanah coincides with the sixth day of creation, when humanity was created; this makes Rosh Hashanah something like the birthday of all peoples. Nonetheless, we know how complex the creation story is: Adam and Eve were formed, given life, found to eat from the forbidden fruit, called to account for this act, and consequently exiled from the Garden of Eden, all on the same day. Thus, Rosh Hashanah is traditionally a day to celebrate our creation, but also a day of accounting for our actions.

I believe that the creation myth of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden continues to fascinate humankind because each of us knows it deep down in our bones: it's true. It speaks of both or longing for unity and our striving for independence.

In our infancy as a species, we felt no separation from the natural world around us. Trees, rocks, and plants surrounded us with a living presence as intimate and pulsing as our own bodies. In that primal intimacy, which anthropologists call "participation mystique," we were as one with our world as a child in the mother's womb. It was, well, paradise!

But then came "The Fall". We remember that the big transgression, the reason for being cast out of the garden was that Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. As a result of their transgression, they were thrown out of the garden. From the perspective of Zen, the knowledge of good and evil of the old myth is the beginning of duality.

Duality means the separation into basic categories, such as good and evil, yes and no, desirable and undesirable. Original sin began with the need for categories; it was the beginning of thought. The knowledge of good and evil was the beginning of thinking. Our thought process is based on the separation of opposites. If we look at the myth that way, the transgression was the beginning of ego life, because it is the ego self that thinks stuff like "I am and you are; we are different". Some of my experience is good and some of my experience is bad.

Since the beginning of time human beings have distinguished pleasant and unpleasant, yes and no, "I want it" and "I don’t want it". That’s the original primary fault; it happens as a reflex. Everything we experience is immediately judged to be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, and then all behavior follows from that. Our need to categorize is the basic activity of the ego self, the aspect of our mind that is dedicated to separation and separate self. We live our lives from that point of view. The fall from grace, the original sin, was the identification with thought, making a distinction between good and evil, yes and no. And that was the beginning of all suffering.

Along with the garden, our species lost the participation mystique, the original intimacy with all living things. Self-consciousness arose and gave us distance. We used that distance in order to make decisions and strategies, in order to measure, judge and to monitor our judgments. With the emergence of free-will, the lonely journey of the ego began, the same journey of which all our fairy tales speak. Painful as the separation was, it brought great learning: The distanced and observing eye brought us tools of science, and a priceless view of the vast, orderly intricacy of our world.

But the achievements of our journey are often overshadowed by what we have lost. We are lonely. We are ready to return. Having gained distance and sophistication of perception is one thing, but we realize that all our technology cannot bring us back home. It's time to turn and recognize who we have been all along. It then might dawn on us that perhaps we are our world knowing itself. For us to go home again, we need to relinquish our separateness.

Without our need for separateness, our senses are no longer slaves of our intellect. We take in the world as it is; overjoyed we realize that we are one with everything. We can come home again, and participate in our world in a richer, more responsible and poignantly beautiful way than way back, in the infancy of our species.

Here's a bit of Rumi (in the masterful translation of Coleman Barks), who celebrated being one with everything like so:

my place is the placeless,
the trace of the traceless
neither body
or soul

i belong to the Beloved,
have seen the two worlds as One
and that One called to
and know:

only that breath
human - being.

Rosh Hashanah is a day for old things ending, and a day for new beginnings. It's a day when we are invited to account for our actions. Maimonides said the blowing of Shofar wants to tear us out of stupor and darkness: "Wake up you people from your sleep and arise from your slumber. Examine your deeds, repent, and remember your Creator. All those who forget the truth, immersing themselves in vanity and emptiness, look into your souls and improve your ways."

Let's make today a day to remember what we have lost in the moment in which we wanted to be "other"; let's make it a day to remember how much suffering we have caused and experienced because of our need to be separate and to see others as separate. From today on, let's think twice before we use the word "other"; from today on, let's remember that our home is our oneness with everything that is.

L'Shanah Tovah to everyone.

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